TV Violence: Target of FCC

April 26, 2007–The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is targeting TV violence, and the entire TV industry could come under fire. “In the Matter of Violent Television Programming and its Impact on Children,” released late Wednesday, concludes that action is needed to curb the level of violence on the small screen –and the government can do it if the industry won't.

The FCC currently regulates programming for indecent content, and its new report moves one step closer to putting violence under a similar microscope.

The proposal could force cable and satellite to offer programing that would give consumers the option of eschewing certain channels. That would mean abandoning the bundled-channels approach that has been the subscription-TV industry norm for decades.

It could also force broadcasters to “time channel” violent content–keep it off airwaves during hours children are likely viewing. The FCC regulations bar indecent content from broadcast between 6am. and 10pm.

“Congress could implement a time channeling solution and/or mandate some other form of consumer choice in obtaining video programming, such as … family tiers or an a la carte basis,” the report concludes. It also says that industry could voluntarily restrict violent programming, thus precluding need for government regulation.

Role of Congress

FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin hopes Congress will take action on its conclusions. In 2004, Congress asked the FCC to examine the subject of violent TV programming and its potential effects on children. Lawmakers also wanted to know whether they or the commission could legally do anything about such content, and whether a definition or standard could be articulated for excessive violence.

The report stated that, while causal links between TV violence and negative effects on kids do not exist, “a strong correlation” does, and that existing blocking and filtering controls are either “of limited effectiveness” or “insufficiently available.” It leaves definition of violence to Congress.

Though the report was passed unanimously by the five-member commission, caveats and concerns from two commissioners could undercut its ultimate impact.

The commission based much of its legal reasoning for the proposed regulatory measures outlined in the report on a 1979 Supreme Court decision that found the government had a “compelling interest” in protecting the welfare of children and could act if the regulatory means were “narrowly tailored.”

At a press conference Wednesday, Martin told reporters that a la carte subscriptions would keep government “out of regulating content directly while enabling” parents to select what they want their families to see.

But while agreeing that “there is a basis for appropriate federal action to curb violence in the media,” commissioner Jonathan Adelstein added a note of caution. “The report is not a model of clarity,” he said. “It gives no understanding of what 'violent' content is.” Rather than try to define violence, Adelstein said, “we totally punted.”

“To my disappointment, this report does not fully display the experience and informed judgment of an expert federal agency that has regulated media content over 30 years,” he said.

Commissioner Robert McDowell said he supports the report, “although I would have preferred a more thorough study.” The report “fails to illuminate a path for Congress to follow in order to safely avoid what legal pitfalls may lie ahead,” McDowell continued.

News Corp., parent company of Fox, which airs a violent show like “24,” has challenged the FCC's authority on indecency and hinted that it would do the same if the commission sought to extend its authority into violence.

Parental Decision

“News Corp. believes that parents, not the federal government, should decide what children watch on TV. Parents already have a variety of controls at their disposal–on satellite and cable and through the V-chip–to help monitor what their children watch. We believe any attempt by the government to regulate violent content will ultimately be found unconstitutional by the courts as a violation of the First Amendment.”

The FCC will threaten the wide range of programming enjoyed by American audiences, including the two-thirds of U.S. TV households that have no children under 18. “The minority of U.S. homes with children have a wealth of very effective tools — including detailed program ratings, the V-chip and cable and satellite blocking technologies — to allow parents to control what their children watch on television.”

The American Civil Liberties Union condemned the report and its recommendations as “political pandering,” and Adam Thierer, a media scholar at the libertarian Progress & Freedom Foundation, said, “Censoring 'excessively violent' television programming is an endeavor without any meaningful policy guideposts.”